Kokuji – Kanji that's made in Japan

Kokuji – Kanji that's made in Japan

Writing came to Japan from China, and Japanese still uses the Chinese characters along with their own native alphabets adapted from them. It was part of the massive cultural importation that occurred over the course of several hundred years. However, there are also hundreds of kanji characters that were made right here in Japan.

These native Japanese characters are called kokuji (国字 – national characters). They're also referred to as wasei kanji (和製漢字 – kanji made in Japan). It's hard to know exactly how many kokuji there are out there since most aren't commonly used, but you can find dictionaries that list them and there are at least around four hundred.

Naturally, most kokuji have only kunyomi (訓読み – Japanese reading) and no onyomi (音読み – Chinese reading), since onyomi readings are generally Japanese transliterations of the original Chinese. Most are combinations where two existing kanji are slapped together to make a new one such as 込 (crowded), which is a combination of辶 (road) and 入(to enter).

As you might imagine, a majority of these characters are used for things in Japan that don't exist in China. There are many kokuji for fish and plant species that are native to Japan. Some are for items used in daily life, such as household objects, or for making measurements. A few are used in the traditional arts and there are some for Japanese food items.


Photo by Pedro

Kokuji characters include:

Shigi (鴫 – snipe)
Kochi (鯒 – flathead)
Namazu (鯰 – catfish)
Iwashi (鰯 – sardine)
Tara (鱈 – cod)
Shachi (鯱 – orca)
Sakaki (榊 - Cleyera japonica, a species of evergreen tree)
Toge (峠 - mountain pass)
Hatake (畑 – cultivated field)
Tsuji (辻 – crossroads)
Nuta (垈 – swamp, wetlands)
Sasa (笹 – bamboo grass)
Momi (籾 – unhulled rice)
Goza (蓙 – mat)
Kamasu (叺 – straw bag)
Hei (塀 – fence or wall)
Waku (枠 – frame)
Tako (凧 – kite)
Momme (匁 – a measurement of 3.75 grams)
Kuruma (俥 – rickshaw)
Ama (塰 – title of a Noh play)
Udon (饂 – udon, Japanese noodles)
Tochi (橡 – horse chestnut)
Shiboru (搾る – to squeeze)

Not every kokuji is something that doesn't exist in China. Maybe some of the words didn't make it across the pond or the Japanese just decided to devise their own. Two that are a bit peculiar are働 (work) and匂 (smell). You have to wonder why these were created anew in Japan.

Interestingly, some kokuji have made it back to China and are now in use there. 働 is an example of one of these.